By: Lorne Chan Spurs.com
Every time an Austin Spurs player makes his NBA debut, a framed photo of them goes up on the wall of Austin’s front office conference room.
There’s Jonathon Simmons, who made the Austin Spurs through an open tryout in September 2013, whose journey to San Antonio has been called the “greatest story in basketball.”
There’s Cory Joseph, who asked to go to the D-League to get more playing time, and went on to celebrate the Spurs’ 2014 NBA Title with four other D-League alums on the roster.
And now there’s a problem.
Since Simmons, Joseph, and dozens more Austin Spurs have gone on to NBA careers, the wall of photos is out of space.
On June 28, 2007, the Spurs announced the purchase of what was then the Austin Toros, becoming the second NBA franchise to own a team.
Ten years later, the franchise and its league have experienced exponential growth.
In the two seasons before the Spurs bought the Toros, the team had two players receive NBA call-ups. Since then, 27 players have received call-ups and the San Antonio Spurs have assigned 28 players to play in Austin.
The league officially became the NBA G League earlier this month and will start play in 2017-18 with 26 teams, 22 of which are owned and operated by NBA franchises.
“The same Spurs principles of Pounding The Rock are in Austin, and it has become the lifeblood of our development program,” said Austin Spurs General Manager Andy Birdsong. “It’s the first place we go to find guys, to cultivate players as well as instill our own culture.”
Thanks to players such as Simmons, the rise of the Austin Spurs and the G-League has made for a decade of success stories.
While Major League Baseball’s minor leagues have been around for more than 100 years, the G League was founded in 2001. Eight players were called up that first season.
Once buy-in began from NBA franchises, the fledgling league blossomed.
Forty-four percent of players on 2016-17 end-of-season NBA rosters had NBA G League experience. In 2016-17, 92 NBA players spent time in the G League through 479 total assignments.
Last season, the Spurs had nine players with G League experience on their roster, the first time in franchise history that a majority of the team played at least one game in the G League. Only Detroit had more with 11.
The Spurs made 28 total assignments during the 2016-17 season, including 11 assignments each for rookies Bryn Forbes and Dejounte Murray.
“There’s a lot to learn,” Forbes said. “To be able to play and raise your confidence in the G League, live game looks are huge. They try to keep things in Austin as close to San Antonio as possible, and you know from the first day how important Austin is to the organization.”
The success extends off the court as well. Staff members who have gone on to the NBA include head coaches such as Utah’s Quin Snyder and Phoenix’s Earl Watson, general managers including Brooklyn’s Sean Marks and New Orleans’ Dell Demps, to an announcer and 20 team dancers.
Expect even more movement between Austin and San Antonio in 2017-18. For the upcoming season, NBA teams can sign up to two “two-way” players to NBA contracts, which allows players to be with their NBA parent team for up to 45 days in a season.
Whether it was Jeremy Lin sparking insanity by going from the Erie BayHawks to the New York Knicks or Hassan Whiteside jumping from the Iowa Energy to the Miami Heat, every G League call-up has added credibility.
“It’s growing because it’s working,” said Tim Salier, Spurs Sports & Entertainment Vice President of Franchise Business Operations. “Every day, the awareness grows a little more.”
That wasn’t the case in 2007 when the Spurs bought the Austin Toros. Many of the D-League’s founding teams had moved and the Los Angeles Lakers were the only team with their own franchise.
The Spurs were coming off an NBA title two weeks before, bringing excitement to the announcement that they were purchasing a D-League franchise.
“When the four-time champions understand the benefits of investing in the D-League, it’s a great referendum on our minor league’s ability to develop players, coaches and front office staff for NBA teams,” said then-NBA Commissioner David Stern.
When the Spurs added their fifth NBA Championship in 2013-14, five players on the roster had G League experience. One of them was Danny Green.
Cut by two teams in his second NBA season, Green signed with the Reno Bighorns in January 2011. Green spent 49 days with Reno. He often worked on his defense and 3-point shot, getting to the gym three hours before practice to work on his shot.
The Spurs signed Green in March, and by the next season he was a fixture in the starting lineup.
“A few years ago, the D-League was probably seen as a riskier route,” Green said. “But now, enough guys like us are everywhere. You seem to hear a story like Jeremy Lin’s or Hassan Whiteside’s or mine all the time.”
Back in 2007 though, the Austin Spurs were still playing their games at the Austin Convention Center, where the locker room was a small employee break room.
They practiced at a nearby rec center, where some of Austin’s homeless would come to take showers.
After one game, the conversion crew never showed up to move the 158 wooden pallets that weigh 55 pounds each and make up the basketball court.
A convention was headed into town the next morning, and the Austin Spurs faced a heavy fine if Exhibit Hall Five wasn’t ready in time.
The Austin Spurs employees all stayed behind to move the court. When dawn broke and they were still running behind, the employees called friends come down and help. The court was removed with about an hour to spare.
“We only had one concession stand in the early going and when we added Dippin’ Dots, that was big,” said Austin Spurs Senior Media Manager Perri Travillion, who has been with the team since their first game in 2005. “When the Spurs came in, the difference was night and day. The level of support and professional input has been everything, especially on the little things that don’t occur to you until you’re not on that level.”
Once the Spurs took over, the changes were gradual but transformative. The team moved to the Cedar Park Center in 2010, leaving behind the Convention Center for a true arena.
Joseph, the Spurs’ first-round pick in 2011, asked to spend more time in Austin to get more minutes and develop. A month after Joseph made the request, Tony Parker suffered an ankle injury. Joseph jumped in as starter and credited his time in Austin for being ready.
The Spurs rebranded the franchise in October of 2014, switching from the Austin Toros to the Spurs and adding SWBC as a presenting sponsor for the season. Salier said season tickets have quadrupled in the last four years.
The best evidence of progress in the G League may come from Simmons, who joined the team through an open tryout in Sept. 2013. He spent two seasons in Austin developing before he became a key part of the Spurs’ bench for the past two seasons.
“Jonathon Simmons sets a benchmark for us, and with every success story, the league continues to grow,” Birdsong said. “We’re very fortunate that our organization has chosen to invest money, care and time and look at it as part of the program. It’s not just the Austin Spurs, it’s the San Antonio Spurs in Austin.”
After 10 years of developing talent in Austin, the Spurs will have to add another photo wall for the players who make the leap to the NBA in 2017-18.
And the person who came up with the photo wall idea? That was Taylor Jenkins when he was an assistant coach in Austin.
Jenkins became Austin’s head coach in 2012-13 and is now an assistant with the Atlanta Hawks. Jenkins is on the wall himself.